How Henrietta Lacks Became the Mother of Modern Medicine

A historical marker in Clover, Virginia, honors Henrietta Lacks.
A historical marker in Clover, Virginia, honors Henrietta Lacks.

On February 8, 1951, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, shaved a piece of cancerous tissue from the cervix of a 30-year-old woman. She had signed an “operation permit,” allowing him to place radium into her cervix to treat her cancer, but nobody had explained their plans to her. And no one foresaw that Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman with a sixth-grade education and five children, would become the mother of modern medicine.

Henrietta was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. Somehow, her name became Henrietta. After her mother died in 1924, Henrietta was sent to Clover, Virginia, to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks. Her cousin David “Day” Lacks lived in the same house.

Seventeen years later, after having two children together, Henrietta and Day married and then moved close to Baltimore so that Day could work at Bethlehem Steel while Henrietta took care of their growing family. She was big-hearted, fun-loving, and pretty, and though only 5 feet tall, she dressed and walked with a flare.

Immortal Cells

But on January 29, 1951, four months after the birth of her fifth child, Henrietta went to the dreaded hospital. Most Black people living in the Baltimore area did not trust Johns Hopkins. It was segregated, so they were certain they would not receive the same quality of care as white people, and, worse, they would be used for medical experiments. There were rumors that surgeons routinely performed hysterectomies on Black women who came in with any type of abdominal or pelvic pain. Henrietta was not one to complain, but, according to the 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, she could no longer bear the painful “knot on her womb.”

The tissue taken from her cervix 10 days later was given to Dr. George Gey, director of tissue culture research at Hopkins [PDF]. He believed that if he could find a continually dividing line of malignant human cells, all originating from the same sample, he could find the cause of cancer—and its cure. His assistant placed tiny squares of the specimen into test tubes, then labeled each tube with the first two letters of the unwitting donor’s first and last names: HeLa.

Oregon State University via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Soon, Henrietta’s cells began to divide. And, unlike the other cells they had sampled, they did not die. Gey started giving the immortal cells to colleagues, saying they had come from a woman named Helen Lane.

Within two years, HeLa cells had been put into mass production, commercialized, and distributed worldwide, becoming central to the development of vaccines and many medical advances. By 2017, HeLa cells had been studied in 142 countries and had made possible research that led to two Nobel Prizes, 17,000 patents, and 110,000 scientific papers, thereby establishing Henrietta’s role as the mother of modern medicine.

Henrietta had died on October 4, 1951. No one had told Henrietta, or her husband Day, that the cells still existed. No one had mentioned the myriad hopes and plans for HeLa cells. No one had asked permission to take them or use them.

HeLa Revealed

In 1971, an article in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology reexamined the origin of the HeLa cells and reported that cervical adenocarcinoma had led to the death of the cell donor, Henrietta Lacks. Her name was now public knowledge.

Two years later, in a casual conversation with a friend, Henrietta’s family learned about the cells. The Lackses were shocked: Henrietta was alive through her cells.

A scanning electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cellsNational Institutes of Health, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Then, a Rolling Stone article created an uproar in the scientific community by disclosing that the woman behind the cells was Black. Once again, the Lacks family was stunned. The article revealed that significant amounts of money were being made from the cells—while Henrietta's husband and children could not afford decent medical care and while her body lay in an unmarked grave.

More reports were written about Henrietta’s cells. Intimate details from her medical record were exposed in a 1986 book called A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman’s Immortal Legacy and The Medical Scandal It Caused. Medical professionals came to draw blood from her children. The BBC made a movie, The Way of All Flesh. And, as Skloot reports, a con man claimed he could get money for the family from Johns Hopkins.

Meanwhile, and throughout subsequent decades, the Lacks family's focus has been to try to figure out what it means to them that her cells are alive. They have received none of the billions of dollars the cells have garnered for biomedical companies, cell banks, and researchers. But Henrietta’s family can be heartened that through the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, founded by Skloot in 2009, the mother of modern medicine continues to demonstrate her big-heartedness.

The foundation’s mission is to “provide financial assistance to individuals in need, and their families, who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent." Moreover, it gives the countless people who have benefited from their contributions a way to show their appreciation to them. To date, members of the Lacks family and others have received more than 50 monetary grants.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Bad Blood: The Hidden Horror of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

A doctor draws blood from one of the study’s subjects.
A doctor draws blood from one of the study’s subjects.

In September of 1932, Public Health Service officials visited Tuskegee, Alabama, where they recruited 600 Black men to receive treatment for “bad blood.” The men didn’t realize they had become unwitting participants in one of the most controversial medical studies in recent times.

Of the study’s participants, 399 of the men were suffering from the advanced stages of syphilis, which at that time was incurable, while the other 201 served as controls. Under the guise of offering medical treatment, the Public Health Service set out to study the effects of untreated syphilis in Black men. Doctors enticed the poor, mostly illiterate Macon County residents to take part in return for free medical examinations, rides to the clinic, and hot meals on examination days. For the participants, many of whom had never even visited a doctor, the offer seemed too good to refuse.

A Secretive Study

Nurse Eunice Rivers interacts with a few members of the study.National Archives/Center for Disease Control // Public Domain

Deception was integral to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The men did not know they were actually participating in an experiment, and were kept in the dark about the true nature of their diagnosis. They were also unaware they weren’t receiving treatment at all: The drugs they were administered were either inadequate or completely ineffective. At one point, they were even given diagnostic spinal taps, a painful and often complex procedure the doctors referred to as a “special treatment.”

Though the study was originally meant to last for six months, the Public Health Service decided to continue it when the participating doctors deemed that only autopsies could determine the damage the disease caused. In other words, the doctors would keep tabs on the men until they died.

To ensure nothing would interfere with the experiment, doctors in Macon County were given a list of the subjects and instructed to refer them to the Public Health Service if they sought medical treatment. The Public Health Service even hired Eunice Rivers, a Black nurse, to maintain contact with the men and ensure their continued participation. All the while, the experiment's subjects were left to degenerate—when untreated, syphilis can cause bone deformations, heart disease, blindness, and deafness.

A medical breakthrough came in 1947, when penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis. Despite this, the doctors involved in the Tuskegee study opted not to treat the men so they could continue to monitor the disease's natural progression. As historian Dr. Crystal Sanders tells Mental Floss in an email, “By withholding treatment, doctors subjected these men, their spouses, and their offspring to serious health problems and death.”

The End of the Experiment

None of the medical professionals involved in the decades-long study admitted to any wrongdoing.National Archives/Center for Disease Control // Public Domain

The study was not without its critics. When Public Health Service official Peter Buxtun learned about the experiment in 1966, he expressed grave moral concerns to the Centers for Disease Control. After numerous organizations, doctors, and scientists still opposed ending the study, Buxtun took matters into his own hands and leaked information about the experiment to Associated Press journalist Jean Heller.

On July 26, 1972, The New York Times ran a front page story exposing the study. Public outrage immediately ensued, but by then the damage was done. At least seven of the men had died from syphilis, while more than 150 had died from heart failure, a condition commonly linked to the infection. Forty spouses had also contracted syphilis, and 19 children were born with the condition. Some of the infected women, who believed the study was legitimate medical care, were turned away when they attempted to enroll. 

Once the study became public knowledge, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare promptly ruled that the 40-year-long experiment come to an immediate end. Yet despite the national outcry, none of the medical professionals involved in the study were prosecuted. “They maintained that they had done nothing wrong,” Sanders explains. “Some even went so far as to assert that the Black male subjects would never have been treated anyway given their financial circumstances, so their study did not harm them.”

With the experiment finally over, the government appointed Dr. Vernal G. Cave to lead a team of Black doctors to investigate. He found that while the experiment was being carried out, at least 16 articles about it had been published in various medical journals. So why had it taken so long to bring the study to an end?

“The subjects were Black and poor and did not warrant much attention from the powers that be,” Sanders says. “Additionally, very few people with the political and social capital to ask questions would have been suspicious of a study underwritten by the federal government and carried out by medical practitioners who had the respect of the local white society.”

A Public Reckoning

In 1973, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the study's participants and their families, and the following year a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached. The U.S. government also agreed to provide free medical treatment to the study’s surviving participants, as well as their family members who became infected during the experiment.

The story of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was brought to the screen 14 years later in the made-for-TV movie Miss Evers’ Boys. When the study’s participants saw the film, they were disappointed by its portrayal of the series of events. It suggested the men had received treatment for their condition, and shifted the blame from the federal government to a fictitious Black doctor and a Black nurse. As a response to the film, the participants enlisted the help of attorney Fred Gray to make sure the nation understood the truth behind the study.

In March 1997, Gray wrote a letter to president Bill Clinton requesting the victims receive a formal apology. Two months later, and more than 50 years after the experiment began, Clinton delivered his apology in a speech at the White House. By that time, only eight of the men were still alive.

“The United States government did something that was wrong — deeply, profoundly, morally wrong,” Clinton said. “What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”

Though the last survivor of the study died in 2004, the experiment has had a lasting effect on the African-American community. A 2016 study found that after the Tuskegee study was exposed, the life expectancy of Black men decreased by 1.5 years, with a marked decrease in patient-physician interactions [PDF]. “There is a long history of poor Black people seeking preventative care and getting anything but that,” Sanders says. “I wholeheartedly believe that there is a connection between present-day African American distrust of the medical field and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.”